Wikipedia biography controversy

Wikipedia biography controversy
John Seigenthaler

The Wikipedia biography controversy, sometimes called the Seigenthaler incident,[1] was a series of events that began in May 2005 with the anonymous posting of a hoax article in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia about John Seigenthaler, a well-known American journalist. The article falsely stated that Seigenthaler had been a suspect in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The 78-year-old Seigenthaler, who had been a friend and aide to Robert Kennedy, characterized the Wikipedia entry about him as "Internet character assassination".[2]

The hoax was not discovered and corrected for more than four months, after which Seigenthaler wrote about his experience in USA Today. The incident raised questions about the reliability of Wikipedia and other websites with user-generated content that lack the legal accountability of traditional newspapers and published materials.[3] After the incident, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales stated that the encyclopedia had barred unregistered users from creating new articles.[4]



The author of the hoax article was later identified as Brian Chase, an operations manager of Rush Delivery, a delivery service company in Nashville, Tennessee.[5] On May 26, 2005, Chase added a new article that contained, in its entirety, the following false text:

John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. For a short time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.

John Seigenthaler moved to the Soviet Union in 1972, and returned to the United States in 1984.

He started one of the country's largest public relations firms shortly thereafter.

Detection and correction

In September, Victor S. Johnson, Jr., a friend of Seigenthaler's, discovered the entry. After Johnson alerted him to the article, Seigenthaler e-mailed friends and colleagues about it. On September 23, 2005, colleague Eric Newton copied and pasted Seigenthaler's official biography into Wikipedia from the Freedom Forum web site. The following day, this bio was removed by a Wikipedia editor on the grounds of copyright policy violation, and it was replaced with a short original biography.[6] Newton informed Seigenthaler of his action when he ran into Seigenthaler in November in New York at the Committee to Protect Journalists dinner.

In October 2005, Seigenthaler contacted the then-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, Jimmy Wales, who took the then-unusual step of having the affected versions of the article history hidden from public view in the Wikipedia version logs, in effect removing them from all but Wikipedia administrators' view.[7] Some "mirror" websites not controlled by Wikipedia continued to display the older and inaccurate article for several more weeks until this new version of the article was propagated to these other websites.[8]

Anonymous editor identified

Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed article describing the particulars of the incident, which appeared in USA Today, of which he had been the founding editorial director. The article was published on November 29, 2005. In the article, he included a verbatim reposting of the false statements and called Wikipedia a "flawed and irresponsible research tool." An expanded version was published several days later in The Tennessean where Seigenthaler was editor-in-chief in the 1970s. In the article, Seigenthaler detailed his own failed attempts to identify the anonymous person who posted the inaccurate biography. He reported that he had asked the poster's Internet service provider, BellSouth, to identify its user from the user's IP address. BellSouth refused to identify the user without a court order, suggesting that Seigenthaler file a John Doe lawsuit against the user, which Seigenthaler declined to do.

Daniel Brandt, a San Antonio activist who had started the anti-Wikipedia site "Wikipedia Watch" in response to problems he had with his eponymous article, looked up the IP address in Seigenthaler's article, and found that it related to "Rush Delivery", a company in Nashville. He contacted Seigenthaler and the media, and posted this information on his website.[9]

On December 9, Brian Chase admitted he had posted the false biography to Wikipedia.[10] After confessing, Chase resigned from his job at Rush Delivery. Seigenthaler received a hand-written apology and spoke with Chase on the phone. Seigenthaler confirmed—as he had previously stated—that he would not file a lawsuit in relation to the incident, and urged Rush Delivery to rehire Chase, which it did. Seigenthaler commented: "I'm glad this aspect of it is over." He stated that he was concerned that "every biography on Wikipedia is going to be hit by this stuff—think what they'd do to Tom DeLay and Hillary Clinton, to mention two. My fear is that we're going to get government regulation of the Internet as a result."[11]

Seigenthaler's public reaction

On December 5, 2005, Seigenthaler and Wales appeared jointly on CNN to discuss the matter. On December 6, 2005, the two were interviewed on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation radio program. Wales described a new policy that he implemented in order to prevent unregistered users from creating new articles on the English-language Wikipedia, though their ability to edit existing articles was retained.

In the CNN interview, Seigenthaler also raised the spectre of increased government regulation of the Web:

...Can I just say where I'm worried about this leading. Next year we go into an election year. Every politician is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me, and hits others. I'm afraid we're going to get regulated media as a result of that. And I tell you, I think if you can't fix it, both fix the history as well as the biography pages, I think it's going to be in real trouble, and we're going to have to be fighting to keep the government from regulating you.

Seigenthaler criticized Congress for passing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which protects ISPs and web sites from being held legally responsible for disseminating content provided by their customers and users, "unlike print and broadcast companies."

In the December 6 joint NPR interview, Seigenthaler said that he did not want to have anything to do with Wikipedia because he disapproved of its basic assumptions. In an article Seigenthaler wrote for USA Today in late 2005, he said, “I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.” [12] He also pointed out that the false information had been online for over four months before he was aware of it, and that he had not been able to edit the article to correct it, when he did not even know of the article's existence. After speaking with Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales, Seigenthaler said: "My 'biography' was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales' volunteers 'edited' it only by correcting the misspelling of the word 'early.' For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before I erased it from the website's history Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on and for three more weeks."[12] Editing Wikipedia, he suggested, would lend it his sanction or approval, and he stated his belief that editing the article was not enough and instead he wanted to expose "incurable flaws" in the Wikipedia process and ethos.

On December 9, Seigenthaler appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal with Brian Lamb hosting. He said he was concerned that other pranksters would try to spoof members of Congress or other powerful figures in government, which may then prompt a backlash and turn back First Amendment rights on the Web.

In the June 2007 issue of Reason magazine, Seigenthaler also expressed concern about the lack of transparency underlined by Wales' removal of the hoax pages from the article's history page. He has also stated that many of the comments left by users in the edit summaries are things he would not want his nine-year-old grandson to see.[13]

Other reactions

In reaction to the controversy, The New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia sent out a memo to his entire staff commenting on the reliability of Wikipedia and writing, "We shouldn't be using it to check any information that goes into the newspaper."[14] Several other publications commented on the incident, often criticizing Wikipedia and its open editing model as unreliable, citing the Seigenthaler incident as evidence.

The scientific journal Nature published a (not peer-reviewed) study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopædia Britannica in 42 hard sciences related articles in December 2005. The Wikipedia articles studied were found to contain four serious errors and 162 factual errors, while the Encyclopædia Britannica also contained four serious errors and 123 factual errors.[15] Referring to the Seigenthaler incident and several other controversies, the authors wrote that the study "suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule."

Wikimedia Foundation reaction

In an interview with BusinessWeek on December 13, 2005, Wales discussed the reasons the hoax had gone undetected and steps being taken to address them.[4] He stated that one problem was that Wikipedia's use had grown faster than its self-monitoring system could comfortably handle, and that therefore new page creation would be deliberately restricted to account-holders only, addressing one of Seigenthaler's main criticisms.

He also gave his opinion that encyclopedias as a whole (whether print or online) were not usually appropriate for primary sources and should not be relied upon as authoritative (as some were doing), but that nonetheless Wikipedia was more reliable as "background reading" on subjects than most online sources. He stated that Wikipedia was a "work in progress".[4]

A variety of changes were also made to Wikipedia's software and working practices, to address some of the issues arising. A new guideline, 'Biographies of living persons', was created on December 17, 2005; editorial restrictions were introduced on the creation of new Wikipedia articles; and new tracking categories for the biographies of living people were implemented.[16]

The Foundation added a new level of "oversight" features to the MediaWiki software,[17] accessible as of 2006 to around 20 experienced editors nominated by Wales. This originally allowed for specific historical versions to be hidden from everyone (including Oversight editors), which then become unable to be viewed by anyone except developers via manual intervention, though the feature was later changed so that other Oversights could view these revisions to monitor the tool's use. Currently such procedures are standardized by the 'Office actions' policy which states: "Sometimes the Wikimedia Foundation has to delete, protect or blank a page without going through the normal site/community process(es). These edits are temporary measures to prevent legal trouble or personal harm and should not be undone by any user."[18]

See also


  1. ^ Wikipedia to Limit Changes to Articles on People
  2. ^ Seigenthaler, John. "A false Wikipedia 'biography'." USA Today. November 29, 2005. Retrieved on September 14, 2009.
  3. ^ "The State of the News Media 2006." The Project for Excellence in Journalism. Retrieved on September 14, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c Helm, Burt (December 14, 2005). "Wikipedia: A work in progress". BusinessWeek. 
  5. ^ "The wiki principle". Economist. April 20, 2006. 
  6. ^ Archived version of the rewriting of the official biography.
  7. ^ Two deletion log entries of the article.
  8. ^ Dalby, Andrew (2009). The World and Wikipedia: How we are editing reality. Somerset: Siduri. p. 59. ISBN 9780956205209. 
  9. ^ Terdiman, Daniel (2005-12-15). "In search of the Wikipedia prankster". CNET 
  10. ^ Buchanan, Brian J. (November 17, 2006). "Founder shares cautionary tale of libel in cyberspace". First Amendment Center. Archived from the original on February 12, 2007. Retrieved October 4, 2011. 
  11. ^ Page, Susan (December 11, 2005). Author apologizes for fake Wikipedia biography
  12. ^ a b John Seigenthaler, "USA Today", Editorial/Opinion, November 29, 2005.
  13. ^ Mangu-Ward, Katherine; Reason magazine; June 2007; Pages 20 - 29.
  14. ^ The New York Times Business editor Larry Ingrassia's memo Wiki-whatdia?
  15. ^ Giles, Jim "Internet encyclopaedias go head to head". Nature, 438 (December 15, 2005), 900–901. ("To read this story in full you will need to login or make a payment".)
  16. ^ Restricted editing Wikipedia Signpost December 2005
  17. ^ New revision-hiding feature added
  18. ^ "Office actions". Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved October 12, 2010. 

External links

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Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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